Friday, August 21, 2015

The Wynne-Harper Feud

A version of this item has been crossposted at iPolitics.

One warm spring evening in 1957 the Premier of Ontario, Leslie Frost, mounted the stage of Toronto's Massey Hall at a Progressive Conservative rally marking the official launch of the federal party's campaign - one that would end 22 years of national Liberal rule.

Premier Frost's role was to introduce the main speaker of the evening, federal Tory Leader John Diefenbaker. He did that and something else besides: his introduction to launch a blistering attack on a recent federal tax-sharing deal offered to the provinces, declaring the issue wasn't "...the Federal Government giving Ontario or the provinces anything. That is the patronizing attitude of Ottawa. All we ask is a reasonable part of our own, a part which is commensurate with the size of the job we have to do...."

Ontario Premier Leslie Frost
 and John Diefenbaker
Frost wanted more resources from the federal government to fund investment in infrastructure, education and economic development among other things. Diefenbaker agreed that Dominion-provincial fiscal relationships "were in a mess." However, he also pledged tax cuts as "one of the major items of business at the next session of Parliament."

La plus ça change.

A dozen years earlier Prime Minister Mackenzie King jousted with Ontario Premier George Drew over the timing of federal and provincial elections as World War II came to an end. Drew, having lost a vote of confidence, scheduled an election for June 11, 1945.  King's five year mandate was up and he planned a federal vote for June 25. Fearing the impact of an Ontario Conservative victory on the federal campaign, King (on the legendary C.D. Howe's advice) called the federal election to coincide with the Ontario election. It was not to be. While King attended FDR's funeral in Hyde Park, Drew outmaneuvered King by moving the date up to June 4. It was too late for King to react. Both would win their electoral contests, but clearly established that federal-provincial feuding would be the new normal - even during elections.

In 2015 the premier is Kathleen Wynne and the prime minister is Stephen Harper. He is refusing to offer federal administrative support to Wynne's proposed Ontario Retirement Pension Plan. She, in response, is doing whatever she can to support Justin Trudeau.

It is hard to overstate just how deeply irresponsible Harper's position is. Federal-provincial cooperation is an essential part of how the federation functions. For example, all provinces except Quebec have their own personal and corporate income taxes collected by Revenue Canada.

Federal-provincial cooperation failed during the SARS crisis of 2003. A subsequent report stated that without fixing this problem Canada would "be at greater risk from infectious disease and will look like fools in the international community."

Various Harper ministers have issued press releases and tweets touting the virtues of federal-provincial cooperation. Free trade agreements require provincial cooperation to be implemented and respected. To take one (rare) example of provincial non-cooperation - when Newfoundland under Premier Danny Williams broke the usual protocols by expropriating the assets of AbitibiBowater, the cost of the action brought by the company under NAFTA had to be paid by the federal government. What Williams did was far from the norm. The same is true of Mr. Harper's refusal of cooperation with Premier Wynne. If a province wants this administrative assistance for a new pension program, Harper is obliged to extend the normal courtesy essential to the efficient management of Canadian federalism - whether he likes it or not.

Harper's position appears to be little more than ideological zeal. His opposition to public pensions has extended in the past even to the Canada Pension Plan.  Toronto Star Columnist Thomas Walkom has noted that "at various times in his career, Harper has dismissed the Canada Pension Plan as a boondoggle and tax grab that should be taken apart and privatized."

Premier Wynne herself has involved herself more deeply in the federal campaign appearing at a rally on August 17 with Justin Trudeau in downtown Toronto where she not only criticized Stephen Harper but also attacked NDP leader Thomas Mulcair's ideas as "incomplete or ... unworkable or ... impossible". If Harper's response to the Ontario pension proposal was intemperate so was Wynne's partisan broadside against Mulcair. She may need a relationship with a Prime Minister Mulcair after October 19. The rules of federal-provincial diplomacy suggest she should have adopted a more measured tone, especially given that both Mulcair and Wynne agree on the need for CPP expansion.

Harper's ongoing refusal to meet with the Premiers outside of one-on-one chats and vapid photo ops - his indifference to working with provinces - has not been good for Canadian federalism. It is time to change the tone.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The campaign so far

The 2015 election started off close and competitive as the fall campaign actually got underway in the summer. After the Alberta provincial election in early May that elected New Democrat Rachel Notley, the national NDP surged to a narrow lead in what is now three-way race. But the national picture is always misleading. Canada-wide numbers are a composite of regional and provincial electoral contests.

All three parties currently have leads in different parts of the country. A tight race means that dramatic change could happen in the blink of an eye. Third could become first; first could become third. The final outcome is far from determined.
Current headlines emphasize the weak performance of the Trudeau Liberals compared to their chart-topping rise in the wake of Justin Trudeau's assumption of the party leadership in April 2013. Nonetheless the Liberals remain substantially stronger than in 2011.

There have been three polls released since the campaign commenced.  One was the Nanos poll, which was taken over a four week period from July 10 to August 7 so it captured more of the pre-election period than the election itself. The others were a Forum poll and an Ipsos poll taken this week.  What was notable about the Ipsos survey is not only was it the first poll after there had been some campaigning, but it used a different methodology than we are accustomed to seeing from Ipsos. Their monthly polls in the past few years have been online. As their news release states "a sample of 2,022 Canadians eligible to vote was interviewed: 1,022 were interviewed online via the Ipsos I-Say Panel, and 1,000 interviews were conducted by live-interviewer telephone (including 40% of interviews conducted on cellphone)". 

It would appear that Ipsos has greater confidence in their polling if it is not done exclusively online.

The individual poll results with my seat estimates can be found below. Early campaign polls and all seat estimates need to be taken with a grain of salt.

The Debate
The Ipsos and Forum polls were conducted following the first major event of the campaign: the television debate. However, the audience size was a fraction of previous debates, so it almost certain that most of the audience consisted of the politically engaged and knowledgeable.

Most debate commentary placed emphasis on the relatively even nature of the performances and the absence of a defining moment, but suggested Justin Trudeau may have done better than expected. My guess is that due to its small audience and uncertain outcome, it had zero impact on the distribution of political preferences in the polls. A couple of polls tried to gauge the debate's impact but they should be distrusted. Pollsters face high refusal rates generally, and must make numerous calls before even one survey is completed. The numbers of calls needed to find those who actually watched would have been astronomical.

I asked people I bumped into the week before about the debate. Only one person even knew it was coming. The debate itself had amateurish production values and a host, journalist Paul Wells, whose lack of television hosting skill was painfully obvious.

The debate situation in Canada this year is a fiasco for which Stephen Harper is squarely to blame. There ought to be a strictly limited number of debates, widely available on broadcast media including television and radio. They should be managed by an independent commission and participation should be based on objective criteria, not the whims of the debate sponsors. The reality is that most citizens have little political knowledge and broadcast debates are an excellent medium for citizen participation in the electoral process. The English debates ought to include the Green Party and the French debates should include the Bloc Québecois. Both parties have demonstrated sufficient levels of support and participation among the electorate to deserve inclusion.

The absence of a widely accessible debate means the electorate is more dependent on news clips and ads, information received passively and often inadvertently. The Conservatives no doubt hope that remains the case. Their behaviour suggests they are fearful that a big widely viewed debate will harm their prospects.

All of this said, debates frequently have no impact on outcomes despite media assumptions that they will. In the Ontario 2014 election Kathleen Wynne was clobbered in the TV debate and then went on to win a majority. Nonetheless, voters should at least have the opportunity to glimpse the offerings of the the parties and leaders without the filter of the news media.

As well, scandals often have less impact than anticipated. Headlines this week are focused on Nigel Wright's testimony at the Duffy trial, and it is true that support for the Harper government was at its lowest in the fall of 2013 at the height of the scandal. If nothing else the news coverage will serve as a reminder of those days. However, I suspect that the impact of the scandal has already been felt, and is priced into the over 20 per cent drop in Conservative support since the last election. It will be difficult and likely impossible for the Conservatives to win back the confidence and trust of the electorate lost in part because of the Senate scandal.